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Strangford Seal Deaths (Warning Picture May Upset Some Viewers)

8th September 2010
Strangford Seal Deaths (Warning Picture May Upset Some Viewers)

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) has expressed concerns over a high number of unnatural seal deaths reported in recent years along the County Down coast.

Declan Looney, Senior Wildlife Inspector with the NIEA said: "Both harbour and grey seals are species protected under European and Northern Ireland legislation. Between late June and the end of November 2009, 16 seal carcasses were recovered from the shores of County Down, largely from Strangford Lough, Minerstown and Dundrum Bay.

"These were submitted for post mortem examination by veterinary pathologists. Twelve of them (predominantly grey seal pups and juveniles) showed signs of having suffered an unnatural death."

The post mortems undertaken in 2008 and 2009 found evidence of drowning, fractured jaws, and extensive knife cuts (generally around the neck) made following the animals' deaths. Several had the head cut off. Severe trauma consistent with gunshot wounds or blows from sharp objects was also recorded.

Though circumstantial evidence indicates interaction with some form of net in at least two cases, there is no proof that these seal deaths have resulted from legitimate, licensed fishing activity. Neither is there evidence linking these deaths to the marine current turbine being trialled in the Strangford Narrows, as this would not inflict the sharp cuts seen.

The Agency accepts that some deaths by drowning may be the result of inadvertent by-catch in legitimate fishing nets. The reporting of such instances will help evaluate the scale of this problem and assess ways of minimising this risk.

Declan Looney added: "The Agency is investigating the causes of this mortality and is liaising with other relevant organisations to address the issue. Members of the public can assist by reporting all dead seal strandings to NIEA on 028 4461 5520.

"Anyone who witnesses suspicious activity involving seals should report this immediately to their local PSNI station, telephone 08456 008 000 or call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

"Any information on suspected illegal netting for sea trout and salmon should be reported on 0800 80 70 60."

Where live seal pups appear to have been abandoned, they should not be approached as their mothers are probably nearby. However where there is real concern over the welfare of such pups and they appear to be injured, sick or distressed, the circumstances should be reported to the Northern Ireland Aquarium (Exploris) on 028 4272 8062 or 028 4272 8002.


This photo was taken at Kircubbin on Strangford Lough, the stick in the picture is a metre rule which gives some perspective

Further Information:

1. Both the harbour (common) seal and grey seal are protected in Northern Ireland by inclusion on Schedule 5 of the Wildlife (NI) Order 1985 as 'animals which are protected at all times'. Both species are also listed on Schedule 6 as 'animals which may not be killed or taken by certain methods' and on Schedule 7 as 'animals which may not be sold alive or dead at any time'.

Anyone with evidence of killings of Schedule 5 species should report this to the PSNI. The PSNI has a Wildlife Liaison Officer who will work closely with the local police station in following up these sorts of cases with a view to prosecution.

2. Both the harbour seal and grey seal are also listed under Annex II of the EC Habitats Directive (1992) as species whose conservation requires the designation of Special Areas of Conservation (SAC). In Northern Ireland there are two SACs where common seals are qualifying features - Strangford Lough SAC and Murlough SAC. However, as species of Community interest (SCI) they are protected wherever they occur, within designated sites or outside.

3. Both species are listed on Annex V of the EC Habitats Directive (1992) as species of community interest whose taking in the wild and exploitation may be subject to management measures.

4. Seals are also protected, through the Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002, where listed as a feature within ASSIs. This is the principal site protection measure in Northern Ireland and has aspects of relevance for a diverse range of marine users, including the powers to prohibit or restrict entry into or movement within ASSIs of people, vehicles and boats. This order makes it an offence to intentionally or recklessly damage or destroy any feature of interest.

5. Harbour and grey seals are also listed on Schedule 3 of the Conservation (Natural Habitats, etc.) Regulations (NI) 1995, providing protection from indiscriminate methods of taking and killing. They are also included in Part IV which requires that appropriate assessments are undertaken for SACs which list seals as qualifying features.

6. The Northern Ireland legislation protecting seals is stronger than that for Great Britain. Here the only situation in which seal killing is legally permitted is where a seal is causing 'serious damage' to a fishery. Such killing must immediately be reported to NIEA with an explanation of the circumstances, which NIEA would expect to give evidence that all attempts to exclude or scare it away had failed.

7. Exceptionally NIEA has issued licenses to the operators of 'fixed engine' salmon nets and fish farm cages to kill seals in response to immediate serious threat to these fisheries, again to be used as a last resort and to be reported to NIEA.

8. Since the 2002 outbreak of the Phocine Distemper Virus (PDV), NIEA has maintained a record of all seal mortalities. As a result of the enhanced environmental monitoring associated with the trial Marine Current Turbine in the Strangford Narrows, all seal carcasses found between Cloghy and Minerstown, including all of Strangford Lough, are now recovered for post mortem examination, except where already in an advanced state of decay.

9. 2008 Seal Mortalities
The 2008 post mortem reports revealed:
• Of the 18 seal carcasses which were submitted for post mortem examination, 9 seals showed evidence indicative of an unnatural death
• 4 seals had the head removed by a sharp blade (not through decomposition as happens naturally)
• 1 seal had net caught around its neck.
• All the unnatural mortalities were recorded between 12th September and 10th November.

2009 Seal Mortalities
The 2009 post mortem reports revealed:
• Of the 16 seal carcasses submitted for post mortem examination, 10 were grey seals (7 pups, 3 adults), 2 were common seals (1 pup, 1 adult) and 4 seals were of indeterminable/unrecorded species (due to advanced autolysis).
• 12 carcases had evidence indicative of knife cuts, drowning, shot wounds or broken jaw. Several seal carcases displayed evidence of a combination of injuries as follows:
• Knife cuts (n=9)
• Drowning (n=5)
• Shot wounds (n=2)
• Jaw fractures (n=1)
• All unnatural mortalities were recorded between 25th June and 30th November.

10 More information on the seals of County Down can be found on the Strangford Lough and Lecale Partnership website


Published in Marine Wildlife Team

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Marine Wildlife Around Ireland One of the greatest memories of any day spent boating around the Irish coast is an encounter with marine wildlife.  It's a thrill for young and old to witness seabirds, seals, dolphins and whales right there in their own habitat. As boaters fortunate enough to have experienced it will testify even spotting a distant dorsal fin can be the highlight of any day afloat.  Was that a porpoise? Was it a whale? No matter how brief the glimpse it's a privilege to share the seas with Irish marine wildlife.

Thanks to the location of our beautiful little island, perched in the North Atlantic Ocean there appears to be no shortage of marine life to observe.

From whales to dolphins, seals, sharks and other ocean animals this page documents the most interesting accounts of marine wildlife around our shores. We're keen to receive your observations, your photos, links and youtube clips.

Boaters have a unique perspective and all those who go afloat, from inshore kayaking to offshore yacht racing that what they encounter can be of real value to specialist organisations such as the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) who compile a list of sightings and strandings. The IWDG knowledge base has increased over the past 21 years thanks in part at least to the observations of sailors, anglers, kayakers and boaters.

Thanks to the IWDG work we now know we share the seas with dozens of species who also call Ireland home. Here's the current list: Atlantic white-sided dolphin, beluga whale, blue whale, bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, Cuvier's beaked whale, false killer whale, fin whale, Gervais' beaked whale, harbour porpoise, humpback whale, killer whale, minke whale, northern bottlenose whale, northern right whale, pilot whale, pygmy sperm whale, Risso's dolphin, sei whale, Sowerby's beaked whale, sperm whale, striped dolphin, True's beaked whale and white-beaked dolphin.

But as impressive as the species list is the IWDG believe there are still gaps in our knowledge. Next time you are out on the ocean waves keep a sharp look out!

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